I still can’t believe that I made it through my entire adolescence without ever reading a single Tamora Pierce book. I was aware of the books, obviously, but I never bothered to pick them up. This was mostly due to my childhood belief that once I found a book I really liked, there was no reason to read anything else – this is why I read Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series multiple times in elementary school, but never bothered to seek out similar series or even any other books by the author. In fact, I remember not being interested in Harry Potter until my best friend in sixth grade gave me the first book for my birthday, essentially forcing me to read it and find out that I loved it. I only wish someone had done this with the Alanna books as well, but better late than never.
Alanna of Trebond is eleven years old at the beginning of the book, and she and her twin brother, Thom, are about to be sent away from home to start their formal education. Thom will be sent to the capital city to train as a knight, and Alanna to a convent. Because Alanan is a girl in a fantasy story, she’s obviously more interested in swordfighting and rejects all things girly, but luckily Thom doesn’t particularly want to be a knight, either. The twins switch places: Alanna renames herself Alan and goes to the capital to be a page, and Thom goes off to the convent (which also takes boys, but teaches them magic? I don’t know; honestly we’re kind of thrown right into the story without a whole lot of set-up, but whatever). Alanna: The First Adventure actually covers the first two years of Alanna’s training as a page, and ends right when she’s preparing to graduate to squire. The plot has to move pretty quickly, since we have to cover two years in roughly two hundred pages, but the essential characters and future plot arcs are properly set up. Alanna acquires a wide sphere of friends and allies, and the most important ones are Prince Jonathan, who is also training as a squire; and George, the king of the thieves. Pretty sure Alanna is going to make out with both of them at some point in the series, and I’m looking forward to this immensely. Also we have an evil sorcerer, who’s so blatantly The Bad Guy that I kind of hope he turns out to be good by the end of the series. But then again, this is a book geared towards children, so he’s probably evil.
I have to admit that the writing wasn’t as good as I thought it would be. It’s sort of awkward and jerky when it should flow, and the story moves so fast that we don’t get the chance to linger on anything. As I mentioned, the reader is thrown into the plot so quickly that it’s a little disconcerting, and the breakneck pace of the story means that the minor characters, like any of the squires who aren’t the prince, don’t have enough time to get fully fleshed out. Also the climactic final battle comes far out of left field, with a haunted city in the desert being introduced by the characters about ten pages before they get there. But, as other reviewers have pointed out, this book was written in the pre-Harry Potter days, when publishers didn’t trust kids to remain interested in a book for longer than two hundred pages. It’s not a perfect introduction to the world or the characters, but I didn’t even mind, because I was having too much fun reading about Alanna, while also getting angrier and angrier that no one sat me down and made me read these books when I was a kid.
I don’t know how she did it, but Tamora Pierce seems to be almost supernaturally tuned into what little girls want their heroines to be. Alanna has red hair and purple eyes, her horse is a palomino named Moonlight, she’s good at swordfighting, she can do magic…by the time she acquired a sword with a magic jewel on the handle, I started wondering if ten-year-old Madeline went back in time, Terminator-style, and ghost-wrote this book. Because seriously, if you polled a hundred little girls and asked them what kind of book they would want to read, Alanna: The First Adventure would cover everything on their list. It doesn’t matter if you think Alanna is a Mary Sue who is good at everything (and if so, go sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done), that is the point. Little girls need heroines who can do everything, be anything, and have supportive friends and guides along the way. Tamora Pierce understands what her audience needs to read about, and I just wish I had read this series when I was supposed to.